Adventures in pre-paid SIM Cards and data GPRS/Edge/3G in China with China Mobile in Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing and other cities

This really is a difficult and confusing process for non-Mandarin speakers, but here's what I've done and learned so far:

You can purchase an "M-Zone" China Mobile pre-paid SIM Card from almost anywhere but I tried to purchase mine from Suning (a large electronics dealer) hoping they would be able to help me or answer my questions but my plan didn't work out at all.  At Suning once I found someone who spoke some English they gave me the 55 RMB M-Zone China Mobile PREPAID SIM Card but did not activate it for me and they kept literally "shrugging off my questions".  Ironically they had a China Mobile booth in Suning and that's where the person who served me the first time took me when I came back complaining it's too hard to activate the SIM card.  They didn't activate it for me and told me to call the English number 10086 (Option 3) but the problem is the English menu is incomprehensible and doesn't help you.  The packaging on the SIM card is also entirely in Mandarin.  So make sure you get your card activated, I'm sure the process is simple if you could just get access to some English instructions (the China Mobile section at Suning did it for me when I came back after some frustration).

Anyway the 55 RMB China Mobile "M-Zone" SIM Card is basically the only other type of card other than some other type I read is mainly sold in rural areas.  It allows more flexibility for things like MMS, SMS and GPRS (and I believe maybe EDGE internet access). At Suning they couldn't tell me how to get a recharge card or how to get/activate data.  I went to another mobile store but they didn't speak English and just refused to help me.

Eventually I went to an official "China Mobile Store" asking for help and how to get GPRS/EDGE activated.  The girl at the booth edited mynetwork settings and set the APN to "cmnet" which I now understand is what allows you to access the net if you have data activated.  I knew mine was not and I kept trying to ask for help with how to activate it.  The story could go on for a long time but eventually they said if I want 3G to go to China Unicom which I understand is true because they use the normal 3G standard whereas China Mobile uses some bizarre "TS-CDMA" standard that requires a Chinese phone or USB 3G card intended for computers.

Some Useful but Random Information I learned

  • Things change fast, a lot of information I read seems to be different or no longer relevant (be careful when reading info on this site or other sites since things change quickly with China Mobile, what may be true now may not be true in the future).
  • Calling 10086 is free access to their service line and option 3 will get you English (although if you try for an operator you won't get one EVER at least in my experience).
  • If you text "GPRS" to 10086 you'll get a Chinese response I believe with the different data options and if you text a certain command back you could activate that data plan (I'm not sure what command other than one that says "BLGPRS" and I have no idea what that does.  I do know I had a 100 RMB for 2GB of GPRS data plan enabled on my phone but I was told within 24 hours I need to add that amount to my account via recharge.
  • I think my EDGE data was enabled right away.  A few hours after I had my hotel help me to activate it I decided to reboot my phone and got an EDGE connection right away.  I believe it becomes active immediately but REMEMBER to REBOOT your phone.  
  • Remember to add "cmnet' as the APN under "Network -> Cellular Datawork".  Leave the username and password blank.   You must set your APN as above or as I found and tested, your data will not work.  Adding "cmnet" to the APN is the one thing I got help with at the China Mobile store.
  • I read "BLGPRS" enables or applies for GPRS and "QXGPRS" cancels GPRS and that "CXGPRS" tells you your data usage.  I'm not sure if that's the best way of doing it because if "BLGPRS" just enables data at a high rate per KB or MB this is the wrong way to do it.  You need to make sure you pick some package such as 50MB, 100MB, 500MB, 2GB etc so that you get a good rate for data use (I'm not sure if after that command maybe you can choose but be warned I have no idea about this part)
  • Be warned that the website on your SIM card package is going to be 100% Chinese so unfortunately as I learned, it's not going to be possible for English only speakers to make use of it.

How To Recharge Your Card

 

  • Buy your recharge card (I needed 100 RMB but only found them in 50 RMB so I bought 2).  Usually you can only find these cards at convenience stores and news stands.  I tried Suning using my translation and also McDonald's (here in Shenzhen they have a sign above the chasier with an arrow that says "China Mobile" but they didn't have it either).
  • Call 13800138000 and choose "Option 2" for English and then "Option 1" for recharge.  Enter your phone number (the one belonging to your SIM card) and hit "#" (or if you're calling from the SIM card to be recharged just press "1#"), then enter the number on the back of your recharge card (repeat the process like I did if you have a second card to add).  You will be notified by voice and by text of your new balance if you successfully redeem your recharge card.

Check Your Balance Online (at least for Guangdong Province)

http://gd.10086.cn/common/include/public/dispatcher.jsp?_backURL=http://gd.10086.cn/ngcrm/hall/servicearea/Balance/index.jsp&_portalCode=bsacNB

China Mobile Commands (I've read they are mainly the same for China Unicom too)

 

*Note if you see multiple commands in the left box it means they all do the same thing (or very similar)

GPRS Will send you the basic command list for GPRS related functions (in Chinese of course)

CXGPRS

BLGPRS

Will send you a list of plans

CXGPRSTC

401

Will send you a listing of your traffic usage

*Note as far as I can tell it only updates every 24 hours, usually at 10:37 AM China time you get a message with the amount deducted and/or how much data you use automatically)

   
   

 


The good news is that once you figure this out, it's very easy to get up and running if you know what I know now.  The EDGE service is good (it's not just GPRS) and quite reliable, stable and fast.  The prices China Mobile charges are very fair and actually their system is very easy and good if you could read and speak Mandarin, or if you learn from some things here.

Generally dealing with China Mobile in person is futile, no one seems to know the whole story or how to assist you and I don't think it's really a language barrier, as I've read, almost all places have no clue about how to help you, or at least not the whole way through to get what you need.  I found bits and pieces of help and information from different people (eg. someone at China Mobile added the "cmnet" to my APN but never helped me to activate data on my account.  Fortunately my Hotel was nice enough to go through the Mandarin Phone system and get an operator to help sort out the plans and activate my data plan.  I was told it's going to be 24 hours before my data plan actually becomes active.  Time will tell if I'm able to at least get EDGE speeds or if they're serious that I'll only get GPRS.


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